5 Reasons to give group travel a second thought

Solo travel slide
From the outside looking in, one might think that going a group tour is like travel with training wheels, or a watered-down version of adventure. You say, “Hey, I’m a confident and capable individual, with a very full passport to validate my travel prowess. Why in the world would I want to risk the enjoyment of my long-awaited (and pricey) holiday by tying myself down to a group of complete strangers?”

Until I began working as a tour leader for InsideJapan, I echoed the sentiments above. I’d never been on a tour nor considered going on one, but after being hired by the company that all changed. Since then I’ve come to realize that everyone should give travel with a group tour a second thought, and here are some of the reasons:
Social aspect_share your firsts

Firsts are better when shared. For many, travel means stepping outside of your comfort zone, trying something new, or fulfilling a dream. Your first pro-baseball game (enjoyed with a hotdog), your first bowl of mind-blowingly awesome ramen, facing your fear of the mic and truly setting “Fire To The Rain” at karaoke: all better when shared, trust me.

Social aspect_food tastes better
Food tastes better with friends.

When traveling solo, I often found that mealtimes were when I wished that I wasn’t alone. Sure, you can try and strike up a conversation with a stranger, or try to find some other lone traveler to share a meal with, and those can be great experiences. However, I find that breaking bread with friends generally means the drinks flow more freely, the food is more savory, and the laughter and good conversation envelop us all.

Social Aspect_someone to listen to your stories
Stories to share.
When traveling in a group, you’re all in the same boat, at the same time, having similar but different experiences. Digesting, laughing, lamenting, and reminiscing with your tour mates is one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling with others. We all have stories to share and experiences to process, and I think our journeys are enriched through their exchange.

You have a tour leader with you.
Which is a benefit to you how? Let me count the ways! Though there are many, I’ll give you what I consider to be some of the top reasons.

There’s someone to make a recommendation
So many choices and so little time! How quickly choice can end up being more of a burden than a freedom. Fortunately, your tour leader is there to help shed some light on your options and hopefully leave you better informed to make final decision.

TL benefit_reccommendation
For example, if you’re visiting Kintaikyo Bridge in Iwakuni and you decide to have some ice cream from the shop with over 100 flavors available (Musashi, it’s famous!), I don’t recommend having the miso ice cream, unless you like very salty caramel with chunks of fermented bean a decent hint of “funky.”

TL benefit_organize last minute2

There’s someone to try their best for those last-minute things –
Client: “I really want to see the ferris wheel that was in the Manic Street Preachers’ video! Is it possible for me to see it before I leave?”
**Note: the client leaves Japan in less than 24 hours and we’re currently in the mountains, in the middle of Honshu, over 200 km away from this ferris wheel.
Me: “Possibly! Let me have a quick think and I’ll get back to you.”
In the end they were able to make it out to see the ferris wheel, which made his trip, and even join the rest of the group for the farewell dinner later that evening.

Inspiration can strike you at any time, and your tour leader may be able to help you put together some last-minute activities or experiences. Though not everything can be arranged on short notice, they will certainly try their best to see if something can be worked out for you.

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There’s someone to worry about logistics -
As the saying goes, “time is money.” Unless you truly relish the idea of spending your evenings and mornings pouring over maps and timetables while on holiday, your time (and money) are better spent letting someone else take care of those things for you. You’ve traveled halfway around the world and you deserve to enjoy being here, instead of trying to figure out how to get there.

TL benefit_take the road less traveled
There’s someone to show you a different perspective -
A tour leader doesn’t just take you from point A to B; they can also share their experiences and insights of life in Japan. All of the IJT tour leaders have lived in Japan for many years, and have done so by choice. Most of us have left for a period of time and returned, we’ve worked on learning the language, invested ourselves in the communities we live in, and love to share what we’ve learned.

The people

The people –
They might all be strangers when you meet the first evening of the tour, but I guarantee they won’t be by the time it comes to say sayonara. Of course you might not get along so well with everyone, but you have an incredibly good chance of meeting some amazing people and forming new friendships. The odds are in your favor for this one, really!

So there you have it!

Does this mean I’ve signed off of solo travel? Oh no, by no means, and neither should you. But I have changed my opinion of group travel and wager that you might, too.

This was posted by Tour Leader, Mark Fujishige

Hosting A Live Charity Event in Tokyo

Event Poster FInal Draft2 copy

Official promotional poster sent out to websites and shared on various social media sites

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20,000 yen for Lenny Kravitz, 4,500 yen for The Charlatans or a mere 1000 yen donation to see The Cinders and friends. Many went Lenny’s way, but we had our share of the crowd too!

4 years on from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and as my recent blog on Ishinomaki highlighted, there is still a lot of support and development required in the town, and many other tsunami-stricken areas of Tohoku region.  While the Japanese government is investing in other economic stimulation projects, it has seemingly lost some focus on what should still be a top-priority issue – the social, economic and developmental support that Tohoku requires.  As Prime Minister Abe and Co. lick their lips at the prospect of the 2020 Olympic Games, the machine that sucks extra taxes out of the locals, yet provides financial gain and entertainment for the corporate/political elite and very few else, residents and businesses in towns like Ishinomaki remain displaced, with families and business owners living/working in temporary structures that should have been long vacated.

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The Cinders, with IJT Tour Leader, Steve Parker on guitar and vocals.

Charity campaigners are still out on the streets of Tokyo, collecting money the stricken population of the region; for cats of Fukushima; ownerless pets of Tohoku… My band, The Cinders, believe that if the area is to move on and see a future of prosperity and happiness, priority needs to be given to the children, offering hope and the opportunity to progress successfully in life after such a harsh start. For this reason, we decided to host a music event with the aim of raising funds for the Ishinomaki Town Academic Fund for Orphans.

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Around 80 people came to enjoy the night of free music.

It was the first time for us to host such an event  – our first aim to secure a live venue for a Saturday night as close as possible to the anniversary date of March 11th. Thankfully, an art and live space by the name of Gamuso Chroma, just 10 minute’s train ride from Shinjuku, was obliging enough to allow us to hold our event for free. This was a huge relief, considering that most live venues will allow only 5 bands to play in an evening, each paying up to 30,000 for 30 minutes of stage time!

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Gare Mcnalle – Japanese solo pianist/singer with an incredible 4-octave voice. Bohemian Rhapsody solo effort – quite something to listen to!   

Next was the task of finding a number of bands willing to join us for the evening. Having been on the fringes of the Tokyo music scene for a couple of years now, as a spectator or performer, I was able to find a range of bands that would hopefully make the evening a memorable one. Hearteningly, of the 8 acts that the proposal was put to, 6 agreed enthusiastically to take part. Then came to inevitable wave of questions – how many amps? what brand and serial numbers? the intricacies of the PA system? could we provide for a VJ? how many mics? what keyboard was available? could equipment be brought by car to the venue entrance? any chance of an avant-garde dancer being able to perform…?

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Ruber Rosa treat the crowd to a little of Van Halen’s “Jump”

Surprisingly though, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to satisfy the artists’ thirst for minutae. Oh, but then came the request from the venue manager – no use of wooden drumsticks, but instead, special noise-reduction sticks that help maintain the balance of sound being produced. Surely this would cause some disquiet among our rock bands, but no, not one squeak of dissent. After all, I presumed, we were playing for free, and the real important focus was to get donations flowing into the children’s fund. I believe everyone was equally attuned to our aim.

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Trancey guitar sounds of LosingMySilentDoors

Next up, some marketing. Our bassist, Justin, got to work on placing ads in Tokyo’s most widely-distributed English-language magazine, Metropolis (metropolis japan.com). I similarly found some Tokyo-based social/music event websites to post on and the rest was down to word of Facebook mouth, and relying on our musical guests to invite their friends and family.

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An acoustic set (always with an injection of anger) by punk pop duo, Theaterbootlegs.

And so to the morning of the event. Even though each band would only be performing for 30 minutes each, they of course needed to rehearse, set up their equipment and have their volumes, reverbs, distortion levels and microphones adjusted accordingly. After 4 hours of greeting musicians, putting up posters, rearranging amps and microphones, chairs and tables; connecting, disconnecting and unravelling twisted cables (subsequently inducing occasional cable rage!) and trying to breathe amongst the haze of cigarette smoke (it seems that Japanese musicians can only breathe if nicotine intake is high), we were finally ready to plug in and play.

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The kings of Tokyo indie folk pop rock, The Watanabes.

There was, however, always the lingering fear that nobody would come to watch, which grew ever stronger as we approached the start of the opening band’s set. To great relief, people started pouring through the doors at 6pm, and I am thrilled to say that after a night of folk guitar, nineties and noughties cover versions, Japanese indie rock, 80’s US rock covers, Japan female punk pop, UK indie rock originals, Stevie Wonder and Queen covers on piano, and Melodic UK folk rock, that we managed to raise 82,000yen for charity.  New friends had been made, music and laughter had been shared, and we had managed to do our little bit to support the ongoing struggles in Tohoku.

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Ganbarou Ishinomaki! Let’s go Ishinomaki! The words emblazoned across the afflicted Tohoku town’s memorial site.

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                                     The Ishinomaki Memorial

For those interested in hearing some of the great indie acts that participated, please check out their music by clicking on the following links:

The Cinders (UK/Japanese Indie Rock):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjqeKAEs8GE

https://www.facebook.com/TheCindersJP?ref=profile

theaterbootlegs (Japanese Punk Pop):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp3mXZijGOk&feature=youtu.be

The Watanabes (UK indie folk/pop/rock):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5noXehtKuI

Ruber Rosa (US Rock Covers):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wqIKH5QUho

mcrana galle  (Japanese piano soloist, Queen, Stevie Wonder covers):

Barely Regal (UK/US Rock covers):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsNy5SSX4l4

Losing My Silent Doors  (Japanese Indie Rock):

https://soundcloud.com/voli-bori

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Godzilla hotel to open its doors in Tokyo

Photo: Cinema Cafe

Photo: Cinema Cafe

As you may or may not know – Japan is not just the land of the rising sun; it is also the land of outlandishly themed hotels. Japan has a fantastic array of accommodation options, ranging from low-budget, space-age capsule hotels to super-high-end traditional ryokan – but it is in the theme hotel department that it really takes the biscuit.

Last month, the Hotel Gracery in Tokyo’s, Kabukicho district, Shinjuku announced that it would be celebrating its opening by unveiling a Godzilla-themed suite, featuring a large Godzilla model (not life-sized, unfortunately), a giant lizard-hand bursting through the wall over your bed, and various other Godzilla-themed memorabilia. Other, less expensive rooms in the hotel will have views of Godzilla walking past the windows, and the building itself will be crowned with a giant Godzilla head.

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A night in the Godzilla room will set you back 39,800 yen (£218) on a weeknight or 49,800 yen (£272) on a weekend – but the more modest (yet still awesome) “Godzilla View Rooms” are more affordable, starting at a reasonable 15,000 yen (£82) per night. The hotel opens on the 24th of April – see Kotaku for more details.

DokiDoki Precure room (Pic courtesy of Ikenotaira Hotel)

DokiDoki Precure room (Pic courtesy of Ikenotaira Hotel)

Many of Japan’s other themed hotel rooms are based on an anime or manga of some kind. These include the super-cutesy Dokidoki! PreCure (an anime TV show) room in the Ikenotaira Hotel and the Cinnamoroll and Hello Kitty rooms in the Royal Hotel; the Gegege no Kitaro room in the Kaike Saichoraku, kitted out with all sorts of ghosts and ghouls; an Evangelion room in Hakone’s Highland Resort, where you can sleep in a space capsule bed; plus Pokemon rooms, Kumamon rooms, Thomas the Tank Engine, Gaspard & Lisa, Miffy, One Piece, Kamen Rider Wizard, Gundam Wing, Ultraman, Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse… The list goes on and on.

Gundam Room (Pic courtesy of Hotel Grand Pacific, Odaiba)

Gundam Room (Pic courtesy of Hotel Grand Pacific, Odaiba)

Besides these, there are also themed rooms based around model train sets, chocolate Koala bears, pandas, and Christmas. And these are just the ordinary hotels.

In Japan, there is also such a thing as a “love hotel” – and here things get even wackier. Love hotels are also known as “boutique hotels” or “fashion hotels” in Japan, but they’re not fooling anyone – we know what they’re for. Much, much more awesome than the humble motel, Japanese love hotel rooms can be rented by the hour, and are almost always themed.

Entrance to the Jurassic Park love hotel in Beppu (photo: joe.ie)

Entrance to the Jurassic Park love hotel in Beppu (photo: joe.ie)

Themes include an S&M Hello Kitty room, complete with manacles attached to all four corners of the bed (sorry…); rooms fitted out with merry-go-rounds; subway-car-themed rooms; rooms where you can pretend you’re trapped in a cage; spider-themed rooms; Pirates of the Caribbean rooms; Batman rooms – and even an entire hotel modelled on Jurassic Park (it’s in Beppu).

Love them or hate them – there’s no denying that Japan’s themed hotels are pretty impressive. Personally I think they’re awesome!

The madness doesn’t stop here! Japan is also the capital of weird themed restaurants, which I explored in a previous post. Check it out HERE.

10 great reasons to visit Japan in the summer

Kamikochi in summertime

Kamikochi in summertime

Spring is sprung, the snow has melted, the blossom is on the trees, and the Japanese are out in full force to celebrate the end of a long old winter. Yes, everybody loves a bit of spring.

But I’m sick of hearing about spring already. I already know about all the great reasons to travel to Japan in the spring. What about summer?!

Perhaps it’s the sweltering heat, or the humidity so thick you could spread it on toast – or perhaps it’s just that everyone goes so ga-ga for spring that they forget there was ever any other season. For whatever reason, summer in Japan tends to get a bit of a bad rap, and it’s totally undeserved.

NEWSFLASH! Summer (June – August) is actually an awesome time to travel to Japan, and here’s why:

Fewer crowds & discount prices

Now I’m not going to lie to you here, it will be a cold day in hell before you do not encounter at least some crowds on your Japan holiday. In a country where domestic tourism is such a big thing, spots like Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion in Kyoto or Senso-ji in Tokyo will always be bustling with visitors. But for the most part there will be many fewer people in summer than either spring or autumn, when the weather is more temperate and visitor numbers swell. The only place where this rule does not apply is at the beach!

You can also travel much more cheaply in the summer, as hotel prices are much lower out of season.

Crowds in Osaka

Crowds in Osaka

Beaches

When you think of Japan, the likelihood is that golden beaches, glittering waves and sunbathing do not immediately spring to mind – but with nearly 30,000 km of coastline it stands to reason that Japan should have a few great beaches.

Some of the very best Japanese beaches are to be found in the subtropical islands of Okinawa (a short and easy domestic flight from the mainland), but if you don’t have the time to make it that far there are great beaches up and down the length of Japan.

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Yours truly enjoying the sunrise on Ishigaki Island (part of Okinawa)

Hiking & climbing Mount Fuji

Though the heat may be on in Japan’s sea-level cities, up in the mountains the temperature remains cool and manageable – perfect for a bit of hiking. Some of Japan’s most stunning geography is to be found in high-altitude spots like the Japan Alps, Kamikochi, and the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, and in the summer everything is at its lushest and most beautiful.

And if you fancy a real challenge, Mount Fuji’s climbing season begins at the beginning of July and ends in early September, giving you a chance to have a crack at this Japanese icon. Though the ascent is tough, you need no technical mountaineering experience and you will routinely find children and senior citizens tackling it without a hitch!

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Above the clouds on top of Mount Fuji

Scuba diving

Unbeknownst to most, Japan is home to some world-class scuba diving. Again, some of the best spots are to be found in the Okinawan archipelago, where the visibility is spectacular and divers have the opportunity to swim with manta rays, hammerhead sharks and sea turtles amongst beautiful coral reefs. One of the most impressive and perplexing dive sites of all is off the coast of Yonaguni, where strange underwater rock formations have given rise to the theory that these are the ruins of some ancient, hitherto unknown Atlantis. The jury’s still out, but the columns, stairs, passageways and plazas of this “underwater city” make an incredible dive nonetheless!

If you want to fit in a bit of diving but are not planning to visit Okinawa, we also recommend Yakushima, the Izu Peninsula (close to Tokyo), or the remote Ogasawara Islands.

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Enjoying some scuba diving off Okinawa main island

Fireworks

For the Japanese, summer is a time for fireworks – and there are many fantastic displays up and down the length of the country. One of the most famous is the Sumida River Firework Display in Tokyo, which happens on the last Saturday of July. In August, Miyajima Island also has a great display, illuminating its famous torii gate – while Toya Onsen in Hokkaido holds a lakeshore firework display every single night throughout the season.

These are just a few examples – wherever you happen to travel in Japan, you’re sure to find a firework display happening near you.

(Photo: JNTO)

(Photo: JNTO)

Festivals

With about one billion festivals happening every month of every year, every day is festival day in Japan – but some of the biggest and best happen in summer. In the northern Tohoku region, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri sees giant, light-up floats travel through the city of Aomori; Akita holds the Kanto Matsuri, during which performers balance giant poles festooned with paper lanterns on parts of their bodies; and Sendai celebrates the Tanabata Matsuri, where festivities include traditional decorations, dances and entertainments.

Further south, Kyoto’s famous Gion Matsuri continues for the entire month of July, including a massive parade and plenty of festivities, and Tokushima on Shikoku Island celebrates the Awa Odori Matsuri – the largest dance festival in Japan.

These really are just the tip of the iceberg – there’s also the countrywide Obon festival, Kyoto’s spectacular Daimonji fire festival, Yamagata’s Toro lantern festival… the list goes on and on.

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Float at Nebuta Matsuri, Aomori

Amazing vending machines

You might think that vending machines are no big deal, but I can assure you that when you visit Japan you will change your mind. These are not your average automated drink dispensers. Oh no.

Japan’s crazy vending machines are no less awesome in any other season – but in summer they are really worth their weight in gold. Japan has vending machines in spades – more per capita than any other country in the world ever – and they are packed full of all kinds of weird and wonderful drinks to keep you cool AND entertained in the heat. Whether you want beer, wine, iced coffee, jasmine tea, grape-flavoured fizzy jelly, sweetcorn soup or pancake-flavoured milkshake – Japanese vending machines can provide. And they also do hot drinks – not that you’d really want those in the summer.

Hello Kitty vending machines

Hello Kitty vending machines

Summer foods & insane ice creams

It would be absolute insanity to suggest that Japanese food isn’t delicious on every day of the year (it is. So. Delicious), but summer brings some excellent speciality dishes that most certainly merit a mention in this blog piece. My own personal favourite is zarusoba, which is essentially a dish of cold noodles served on a bamboo tray with a dipping sauce called tsuyu. You may think that this sounds less than palatable, but in fact it is incredibly delicious and exceedingly refreshing.

Japanese ice creams are also a real treat and come in all kinds of flavours. And I mean Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans kind of all kinds of flavours. My personal favourites include kurogoma (black sesame), beni-imo (Okinawan sweet potato) and matcha (green tea). My personal least favourite is wasabi, which should absolutely not be ice cream. Ever.

A delicious lunch of zarusoba that I ate in Karuizawa

A delicious lunch of zarusoba and tempura in Karuizawa

Music festivals

Another light that Japan likes to hide underneath its bush (along with its beaches, scuba diving, and beautiful mountain scenery), are its music festivals. Though barely known amongst music aficionados in Europe or the US, Fuji Rock (which takes place at Naeba resort on the last weekend of July) is world-class, attracting line-ups packed with international household names as well as Japanese acts that are little known outside of Japan. This year, the festival boasts the Foo Fighters and Muse as headliners – while previous events have hosted The Cure, Bjork, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Massive Attack and many more.

If you can’t make it to Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic is another excellent Japanese music festival, taking place simultaneously in Osaka and Chiba (near Tokyo) in early August.

Fuji Rock Festival

Fuji Rock Festival

Beer gardens and nomihodai

Last, but certainly not least, are beer gardens: Japan’s summer entertainment staple. As our Viv noted in a 2013 post, Sapporo is home to the king of beer gardens for a month in July, when the whole of Odori Koen Park is transformed into a giant beer garden – but beer gardens are a firm fixture of the summer scene across Japan. Often located on the tops of buildings, these beer gardens often operate the delightful Japanese tradition of nomihodai: “all-you-can-drink” (for a set price).

Drunkenness and high buildings? I can’t think of any better reason to head to Japan than that.

#MyInfoPack Competition

For those of you heading out to Japan with us this year, we thought we’d run a little competition to make your trip even more special.

All of our small group tours and self guided customers will receive a carefully crafted and personalised Info Pack which will have all you possibly need to get you from A to B in Japan (you will recieve the Info Pack approximately four weeks before your departure).

The Info Pack has everything you need to know for your trip – Which trains/bus/ferry to catch and where to get them, your hotel guide and easy to read map and directions along with destination guides for each place you visit with our ‘inside’ tips on where to go and what to do with all the essential info in English and Japanese, ensuring that your trip runs smoothly and that you don’t miss out. Here is what the Telegraph said about the Info Pack. This little book does a lot for you when travelling through Japan, so we wanted to give the InfoPack some love.

All you need to enter to do to enter the #MyInfoPack competition is grab your camera and take a picture of you with your Info Pack in Japan.

#MyInfoPack

Just to clarify, here’s what you need to do..

1) Take a picture of you with your InfoPack in Japan

2)  Send your picture to me (james@insidejapantours.com)
- or even better, post to your Facebook or Twitter and share with InsideJapan.

3) Use #MyInfoPack and mention InsideJapan

4) Get your picture to us or posted on social media by June 30th 2015!

#MyInfoPack

We have lots of little Japan prizes including Lucky Cats, Hello Kitty goods, Ghibli DVD’s and a nice camera too.

We will give a prize to..

1) The person who posted the most interesting picture with #MyInfoPack

2) The person who posted the most pictures of #MyInfoPack

We hope you have a fantastic time in Japan and we look forward to seeing your photos!

Ki o tsukete (Take care),
The InsideJapan Tours team

Four years on from the Tsunami

Lets go Ishinomaki

With the fourth anniversary of the great tsunami here and the disaster hit areas recently highlighted by Prince Williams royal visit, we thought you might want to read our Steve’s account of his recent Ishinomaki visit…

Recently, I led our A Northern Soul Tour through the wonderful Tohoku region of Japan, following in the footsteps of arguably its greatest poet, Matsuo Basho, who took 6 months of life to hike what became known as Oku No Hosoi Michi, the Narrow Road to the Deep North. The 1200-mile odyssey spawned prolific travel writing and poetry and highlighted this truly wondrous region of Japan.

Although the Japanese themselves are well aware of the region’s many appealing attractions, the (undiscerning) majority of foreign travel companies and travelers overlook it. That was to our advantage recently – it was our own adventure, exclusive in that we met just one Taiwanese group in 2 weeks after leaving Tokyo and heading north!

However, herein lies the sad legacy of the 2011 Great Northeastern Earthquake, which still deeply affects the golden people of Tohoku, both emotionally, economically and in their daily lives. Unfortunately, in an industry where awards are collected like pin badges, somehow validating the quality and trustworthiness of a company, the responsible tourism bandwagon is a crowded bus that every travel firm seems to claim a seat on. Some firms hold, however, suspect credentials.

Therefore, at InsideJapan Tours, we felt it crucial that during a 2 week trip of World Heritage Sites, Nature Trails, zen gardens, sumptuous Japanese feasts and traditional Japanese accommodation with its immaculate service, that we should drop in on one of the afflicted towns of the ensuing tsunami.

Ishinomaki is one such place – a fishing town that, for a while at least, became known to the world. Youtube satiated the voyeuristic lust for the devastating – a disaster unwinding before our very eyes, was satiated as the earth’s assertiveness over humanity was. It was hard-hitting, for some maybe even entertaining, and then it was forgotten. For the people of Ishinomaki, every day touches on that fateful event in some way, for all who survived. 4761 perished, and some 420 people are to this day unaccounted for. The eternal pain and grief that this lack of closure must cause is unimaginable. The sense of loss that this town has had to endure is immense, yet, as perhaps you can imagine, you will not meet a finer community of smiling, warm, welcoming people who can claim to have a clearer perspective on life than someone like myself.

My first visit with the group was a non-scheduled side excursion. We arrived late afternoon so the sun had already set. Although dark, I believe my group understood the reasons to be there. We grabbed 2 taxis and I asked  both drivers, who were on duty on that day, to take us where they felt we should see. One driver relayed how he had been parked in the station- front taxi rank at 2:46pm, March 11, 2011, when the huge 8.9 temblor struck off the Tohoku coast. An hour later and the station area, some 3km away from the seafront was inundated with waist high water.

Perhaps the fate of this lucky driver was sealed by falling debris in the station due to the quake. He and other taxi drivers offered comfort and warmth by allowing the injured to sit in the cab until the shaking stopped. He was then involved in helping those (numbers unknown) and so was off duty, away from the coast, and therefore relatively safe.

We were driven to the seafront, peered out into the still darkness which permeated a chillingly menacing presence in the cold darkness. Then onto the famous memorial and logo board, painted just after the disaster. An eternal lantern remains lit, and flowers are regularly laid. The words Ganbarou Ishinomaki (Let’s Go Ishinomaki) are emblazoned upon timber panelling as a motivator and a 6.9metre wave height marker gives context in an area that had 1800 buildings – the majority completely destroyed.

After wracking up 60 pounds in taxi fares, we asked to be dropped in the restaurant area of town. I wanted to put a little money into the pockets of a locally-run business. A little disappointing, yet ironically of course immensely heartening was the fact that I could not find anywhere for my group on a Saturday night – all fully booked. Good to see people are eating out, socializing and enjoying each others’ company – moving on and up. Hence, with the cold and time running out, it was time to leave and head back to the city of Sendai.

For me that encounter was not enough though, and so the week after my tour finished, I made the trip back to the town to spend a day interacting and exploring, in order to put more context to everything. Partly for personal reasons, partly for work, I needed to return to talk to more people, spend a little more money and see the town in the light of day. I rented a cycle and took most of the afflicted areas in.

Next year, I hope to have InsideJapan Tours groups and individual travelers staying in Ishinomaki for a night – the local community will warm to you, you will bring a smile to faces, perspective on life will be gleaned, and hey, if you feel a little good about yourself – well great! Please go to Ishinomaki when you get the chance!

Here are some of the photos that I took on that moving day:

Left to Die

This former shop, right on the Kitakami River remains derelict and contorted, untouched since the disaster.

Lost Home, Lost Hope

House and garden in ruins. On the Kitakami RIver, a mile from the seafront.

Deleted Edo House 2

Some buildings received more renovation and maintenance than others. In the background, the manga artist, Ishinomori Shotaro-inspired Manga Museum is open for visitors, and is one of the tourist attractions of the town.

The Hill that saved lives - Hiroriyama

This charming little girl was playing in the park on Hiroriyama Hill with her grandparents. The sign designates the hill as an official disaster evacuation point. It saved 100s of lives as many climbed the hill to avoid the incoming mass of seawater.

Hand Written Daily Paper - post tsunami

For days, the local Hibi Newspaper could only inform the community by handwriting 6 large sheets of headline news and posting them at city hall and at convenience stores in the afflicted area.

Ishinomaki High School Baseball team - playing for lost schoolmates

I happened across Ishinomaki High School baseball team members. They were running up and down the steps of the shrine complex. These students are truly playing the game in memory of lost friends and family.

6.9 Metre Tsunami Wave Marker

A young woman peers up to the top of the wave marker, just 500 metres from the shore. The tsunami reached 6.9 metres at this point. Kadonowaki District had pretty much all of its 1800 houses and businesses completely destroyed.

Kashima Mikou Shrine

The abandoned Kashima Mikou Temple, 500metres from the shoreline

Wasteland Where 5000 once Lived

Wasteland where once was…

A Business Grows

Heartening to see the young folks of Ishinomaki starting their own businesses. This cafe was remodeled and a new venture started after the original went out of business.

Ganbaro!

The same slogan of encouragement, 4 years on. The surrounding area remains a barren wasteland of grass and weeds.

Shoreline 2014

High on Hiyoriyama Hill – this was the point from where extended footage of the disaster was shot.

Sunset on Kitakami River, Ishinomaki

The calm of the Kitakami RIver at sunset – the chaos of the disaster seems impossible to fathom on such a beautiful evening.

SONY DSC

A Tohoku smile to touch the heart of the most hardened. This is the welcome you get in Ishinomaki!

Steve and his band will be playing a charity gig in Tokyo to raise money for victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. If you are in Tokyo this weekend why not support a good cause and get a taste for the local indie scene..

Chrity fundraiser

8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

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